Will the Jaish Revival in Kashmir Throw It Back into Chaos?

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The return of the podgy cleric

ON NOVEMBER 6TH, after a long gunbattle, security forces killed three terrorists hiding in two houses in South Kashmir’s Pulwama district. Two of them turned out to be Pakistani nationals. In a statement issued soon afterwards, a spokesperson of the terrorist organisation, Jaish-e-Mohammed, formed in January 2000 with the aim of ‘liberating’ Kashmir from India, said that one of the three killed in that encounter was Talha Rashid, nephew of the group’s chief, Maulana Masood Azhar. The statement was followed by a speech by Azhar himself in which he eulogised Rashid, and repeated what he must have said to tens of thousands of men for close to three decades: 72 virgins always awaited men like Rashid at the gates of heaven.

On November 18th, in another encounter in North Kashmir’s Bandipora, six terrorists were killed. One of them was identified as Owaid, nephew of Zaki-ur Rehman Lakhvi, the Pakistan-based mastermind of the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks.

Is it a coincidence that relatives of two big terror masterminds were found to be fighting in Kashmir? Highly placed sources in the Jammu & Kashmir Police say ‘no’. At a time when militancy in the Valley is at its lowest after months of turbulence in the wake of terrorist commander Burhan Wani’s death in 2016, security forces now believe that Pakistan is reviving Jaish to offer a fresh impetus to their jihad.

“To be honest, we don’t even know for sure whether Talha and Owaid really are nephews of Azhar and Lakhvi. But it boosts the morale of the militant residue in Kashmir when they are told that a relative of an important ‘amir’ (commander) like Masood Azhar is fighting along with them,” says a senior police officer. With almost 200 terrorists killed in the Valley this year, the separatist machsimo is on the wane. The pressure put on Kashmiri separatists through the National Investigation Agency has put them on a defensive. The two main political parties in the state, the National Conference and People’s Democratic Party have also gradually begun to disengage from competitive secessionism. Sensing this, the Pakistani military establishment is now keen to let the Jaish take over in Kashmir. In August, according to intelligence reports, around 30 of its terrorists managed to infilitrate Kashmir through Jammu’s Poonch division.

“Think of these men as illiterates like Ajmal Kasab,” says a senior police officer, referring to the sole Mumbai attacker caught alive. “They are sent to Kashmir with instructions to carry out suicide attacks against security forces. They are told that there is oppression of Muslims in Kashmir and that they are not allowed to even pray in mosques.” That is why, says the officer, the attempt is to not give these men time to settle down. “Because if they do, they can see that things are pretty normal in Kashmir and that confuses them,” he says.

The security forces first got a whiff of a Jaish revival in June, when its men carried out five terrorist attacks in a matter of few hours across Kashmir. Luckily, no one was killed in these. After operating in Kashmir for close to 13 years, the Jaish suffered serious setbacks in 2013. But now, it has been asked to push its way back.

In the wee hours of October 3rd, one Jaish squad struck in Srinagar, attacking a paramilitary camp next to the airport. But the attack was repulsed; three terrorists and a soldier died in the ensuing gunfire. Less than a week later, security forces got lucky and killed a top Jaish commander, Khalid, in North Kashmir. The police said he had planned that camp attack and was also involved in armed aggression against police lines in the state’s south, which resulted in the death of four paramilitary jawans and four policemen. One of the longest surviving foreign terrorists in Kashmir, Khalid was in charge of a terror module consisting of at least 12 men. “He had been instructed to attack major security installations in Kashmir,” says Inspector General of Police Munir Khan.

But the police see Khalid’s death as a temporary setback to Jaish. “As long as Masood Azhar is free in Pakistan, we will have trouble,” says a senior police officer.

In April 2000, a 17-year-old boy from downtown Srinagar, Afaq Ahmed Shah, blew himself up in a Maruti car laden with explosives at the gate of the Army’s 15 Corps headquarters in Srinagar. This was the first suicide attack in Kashmir, traced back to the guidance of a short, portly man the Indian Government was forced to set free just a few months earlier in exchange for the passengers of a hijacked aircraft.

Right after his release, Azhar set up Jaish in January 2000, and in the next two years planned scores of suicide attacks across Kashmir. In October 2001, a deadly suicide attack outside the Assembly building in Srinagar killed 34 people.

At a time when militancy in the Valley is at its lowest, security forces believe that Pakistan is reviving Jaish to offer a fresh impetus to their Jihad

In the beginning, luck had not favoured Azhar much. After proving a failure at a military training camp for jihad in Afghanistan, he had impressed his handlers with his knowledge of scriptures and teaching skills. He also had an ability to make rousing speeches, which terrorist commanders of the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM) found useful. The HuM encouraged him to travel, and in the early 90s, he visited 25 countries in Africa, Europe and elsewhere to collect funds for jihad. In this endeavour, by all accounts, he was a success.

A month after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in December 1992, Azhar was sent to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir by his handlers to meet a veteran militant commander, Sajjad Afghani, who had fought alongside the Afghan Mujahideen against Soviet forces. The two hit it off well and decided to work together. The two flew to Dhaka in 1994, from where Azhar landed in Delhi on a Portuguese passport. Afghani was sent to India by means of other channels.

The immigration officer at the airport told Azhar that he did not look like a Portuguese citizen, to which he replied that he was originally from Gujarat. In Delhi, Azhar spent a night at the Ashoka Hotel and then travelled to Lucknow, en route to Ayodhya.

In his sermons later, Azhar would refer repeatedly to Ayodhya. He would say that the ruins of the mosque there made him very angry and that he had vowed to restore it to its former glory.

From that town in Uttar Pradesh, Azhar reached Jammu and then finally Kashmir Valley, where his first sermon was held at a hideout in South Kashmir’s Anantnag district. By 1994, the first wave of militancy, which began in 1989-90, had suffered a setback. The Hizbul Mujahideen, which had taken over from the Jammu & Kashmir Liberation Front as the dominant terrorist organisation, was in the doldrums over the waning sentiment among many Kashmiris for aazadi. That day at that secret Anantnag location, Azhar addressed two dozen armed terrorists, asking them in the rhetorical style that was by now his hallmark to launch an all-out war against India.

But Azhar’s stay in Kashmir proved to be extremely short. Just two days later, while travelling to another place with an accomplice, their car broke down. Upon hailing an auto-rickshaw, he was spotted by security forces who got suspicious and arrested him.

Azhar’s arrest was a big blow to his Pakistani handlers. The Indian authorities, however, had no clue how important their catch was. In custody, Azhar fooled his interrogators, who wrote in their report that the man was not involved in any terrorist activity in Kashmir.

OVER THE NEXT few years, Azhar’s benefactors in Pakistan made several attempts to free him. In 1994 itself, they kidnapped two foreign nationals on a trek in Kashmir, demanding the release of Azhar in exchange. Later, Omar Sheikh—who would gain infamy for the killing of Wall Street Journal’s reporter Daniel Pearl—was sent to India to abduct foreign nationals to secure Azhar’s release. Sheikh did kidnap four tourists, but they were rescued accidentally from the outskirts of Delhi when a police party, which had gone there to investigate a case of bicycle theft, stumbled upon them in chains. In 1995, another attempt was made to free Azhar by taking five more foreign tourists hostage in Kashmir. But even this couldn’t translate into freedom for Azhar.

In June 1999, Sajjad Afghani (arrested separately) and other terrorists made an attempt to escape from a Jammu prison where Azhar was also lodged. The plan failed and Afghani was killed by the prison guards.

It was in December 1999 that Pakistan eventually managed to free Azhar, when terrorists hijacked the Indian Airlines’ flight IC- 814 to Kandahar, Afghanistan. After a week, New Delhi freed Azhar, Omar Sheikh and a dreaded Kashmiri terrorist, Mushtaq Zargar.

After his freedom, Azhar and Sheikh first went to meet Osama bin Laden and then reached Pakistan to a rousing welcome. There, in a Karachi mosque with thousands of followers, Azhar announced the formation of the Jaish-e-Mohammed. Its first training camp was set up at Balakot in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province.

The Jaish did not stop at Kashmir. In December 2001, its cadre along with Lashkar-e-Toiba made an audacious attack on India’s Parliament, bringing India and Pakistan to the brink of war.

But afterwards, on account of pressure from an America reeling under the shock of 9/11, the Pakistani authorities were forced to act against Jaish. Azhar spent many years in preventive custody. His cadre was getting restless, and many of them joined other terrorist groups who were training their guns on Pakistan.

In 2014, Azhar was let free. “This is the time when Pakistan’s ISI decided that it is better Azhar and his men are used against India than Pakistan,” says a senior police officer in Kashmir. In January 2016, Azhar’s men attacked India’s Pathankot air-base, sounding alarm bells through the country’s security establishment.

The Jaish revival is more ominous for Kashmir because Azhar’s old friend Mushtaq Zargar is believed to have been sent by his Pakistani handlers back into Jammu & Kashmir. Zargar spoke to a few journalists apparently through a satellite phone, telling them he was back (in Doda, Jammu) and that he was helping the Jaish attack security forces. “He is a dangerous man,” says a police officer. “Azhar and he work as a team, where he helps Azhar recruit Kashmiri boys for jihad.”

On December 2nd, Masood Azhar is scheduled to address a ‘shohda’ (martyr’s) conference in Rawalakot in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. According to intelligence sources, this event, to be held at the Sabir Shaheed Stadium, will also be attended by other top Jaish commanders as well.

The next summer will be crucial for Kashmir. Whether Azhar will manage to throw it backinto chaos is a question everyone in Kashmir is asking.